A Jointventure of
Spotlight On
A | A | A

Success as a Female Engineer


Job security, work within a team and an international environment - for Burghilde Wieneke-Toutaoui, these were decisive criteria in the choice of the discipline. Today a university professor and mother of three children, she discusses her experiences of balancing a management position in academia with family life.

Erfolgreich als Ingenieurin© privatProf. Dr. Ing. Burghilde Wieneke-Toutaoui is president of Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences and chair of the VDI's "Women in Engineering Professions" network
Wieneke-Toutaoui studied mechanical engineering at the TU Berlin. "At the time, I was surprised how low the proportion of women was. That was in 1976," says the now 55-year-old. "A grand total of two women from my school year opted to pursue a degree in engineering. I didn't realise that it was a purely male-dominated subject," she says of her start in the world of engineering. "Today I am disappointed that so little progress has been made." For the proportion of women has not increased much to this day.

Promotion despite pregnancy

Wieneke-Toutaoui's career led her to a position as a research assistant at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology in Berlin where she also completed her doctorate in 1987. She did not experience any discrimination due to being a woman and a mother. "The day I informed my superior of my pregnancy was also the day I was promoted to group leader," she says of the trust her superior at the Fraunhofer Institute had in her. Wieneke-Toutaoui is today president of Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences.

While balancing family life and a career has certainly been an issue for the mother of three now grown-up children over the course of her career, "this is not only a challenge for female engineers, but for all working women. Female nurses and doctors must also balance family and a career."

She received support from her family, au pairs, and all-day nurseries and schools. These were a huge help, she says, as the career step to professor for Industrial Engineering at Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin at the age of 31 would not have been possible otherwise. She was the vice president to studies and curriculum here for eight years, specialising in generative production processes and lean manufacturing.

Good prospects as a women in the engineering profession

"Once you have got into the engineering profession, opportunities for advancement also exist for women," she says. She did not encounter any major difficulties, though it was extremely difficult to achieve management status as a mother of three children. A great deal was packed into her life between the ages of 25 and 35. "But this is by no means necessary. I do not think you need to want everything at once. There is still plenty of time between the ages of 35 and 67. This requires the environment to allow a professional career then." She cannot confirm the notion that women must achieve more than men to progress, for "men also work a lot".

So why do so few women venture into engineering? It is difficult to say. "If I knew that, I would inundate Germany with project ideas!" She suggests the significantly better standing of the engineering profession here in Germany as a possible reason for women often not having the courage. In other countries (e.g. those around the Mediterranean), engineering is a completely normal profession that women also take up, says Wieneke-Toutaoui. "In Germany, the image of the engineer is characterised by that of inventors and company founders, such as Siemens and Bosch, all of whom are strong male figures. Women simply cannot identify with these figures."

Avoid being a nerd - at all costs

The fact that, unlike in other countries, people in Germany are often judged and pigeonholed according to their profession also tends to be a hindrance. It is speculated that women do not wish to be branded a techie or nerd. And this although communication plays such an important role in the profession, Wieneke-Toutaoui remarks. Sexism in advertising undoubtedly also contributes to reinforcement of the traditional role models. What's more, women receive far less encouragement overall to pursue a career in engineering.

"It is sad, but we still haven't found the best approach," she says of the negligible rise in the number of female students in engineering degree courses. She now mainly advocates the dissemination of information, for example, as the chair of the VDI's "Women in Engineering Professions" network and MINTalente, a project in which several hundred female engineers act as 'role models' for female students. Young women are thus able to find out more about the work and the day-to-day professional and family lives of female engineers during events, personal development seminars and an exchange with the mentors.

More offers for aspiring female engineers than demand

"There are a great many projects and events for women. There isn't really a need for more." What's more, in light of the shortage of specialists, companies are extremely interested in tapping the potential of female engineers. "But women do not necessarily react to the demands of the prevailing economic situation," she concedes. If one looks at the frequency with which male and female students enrol at universities and universities of applied science, it is clear that the number of men who decide for a degree in engineering fluctuates according to the state of the economy. Conversely, while the number of women is increasing, it is doing so continuously, regardless of demand within the industry. "They base their decisions on other criteria," says Wieneke-Toutaoui.

Engineering as the Career Goal - Further Information

- A project supporting young women in the mathematics, informatics, natural sciences, and technology (MINT) disciplines (in German language).

- The Association of German Engineers (VDI) is the largest European network for female engineers with more than 10.000 women working in engineering professions.
She decided for a career in academia. "It all just fell into place," she says. "I could very well have worked in industry though. At the Fraunhofer Institute, we always worked very closely with companies on the application-oriented research." But in the public services, other mechanisms are at work than in a company: "If top management at a company resolves to encourage women, they normally receive the necessary support relatively easily. It's a different story in the public services," laments Wieneke-Toutaoui.

As president of the Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences, she wishes to take a closer look at the incentives for women and to develop these further. A preliminary analysis established that the proportion of women in administration and among research assistants is acceptable. However, the university can and wants to cater to women and families even more.

Back to the frontpage "Spotlight on: Women in Engineering Professions"»

academics :: January 2014